Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead, Road to Perdition) has described his new film Away We Go as a companion piece of sorts to his last film, Revolutionary Road. That might be a bit of a stretch since Revolutionary Road was a high-powered drama, and Away We Go is a light-hearted romantic comedy. Regardless, Away We Go, which stars John Krasinsky and Maya Rudolph as an unmarried couple that sets out to find the perfect city to raise their child, benefits from its low-budget approach and well-written script (by Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida). Here’s what Mendes had to say about the film, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, when he addressed a roundtable of reporters last month in Los Angeles.
How did you get involved in this project?
I heard about the script and I sought it out and read it, and loved it I thought it was very funny and thought it was a very hopeful and sort of joyful film, with a great spirit in it, and a lot of love, and for me it was sort of a wonderful tonic after the darkness of Revolutionary Road, you know to be able to do something completely different.
You’ve actually called it a companion piece to Revolutionary Road. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, you know in very obvious ways it’s the flip side of the same coin. You know it’s a couple who, this time, they want to escape and they can. I think that if you look at the most romantic comedies, and certainly Revolutionary Road is not a romantic comedy, but it is about the mechanics of a couple facing each other, about the relationship itself. This treats the couple as a unit. They’re in love and they love each other and they’re happy. And it faces them out to meet the world, and that’s completely different. In the traditional romantic comedy boy meets girl, they fall in love, then something goes wrong, and then they are reunited at the end. That’s sort of different here and I like that. And then there are a lot of weird echoes. Like the beginning of Revolutionary Road, there’s a scene by the side of the road, they pull the car over. And now there’s one here too and it couldn’t be more different. And all sorts of echoes throughout, there’s a dance three quarters of the way through Revolutionary Road in which Kate’s character spins out of control and here there’s a dance in which the tone of the film changes again.
You mean the pole dance?
Yeah, so there’s all sorts of parallels and that really appealed to me, I don’t know why, I’ve never done two movies that are sort of opposite ends of the same spectrum, I’ve always done movies that are quite different one after the other. But most of all Revolutionary Road, proud of it as I am, it’s a very dark film about relationships and I don’t, as a person, believe that men and women are destined to be apart, and you know we are on the road to nowhere, you know I’m not a [Richard] Yates-ian in spirit, I’m an optimist. And the echoes veto world is more what I actually think about the world than the Yates world. So it was very important to get that back because I’ve made three movies on the chart, Road to Perdition, Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, that were all pretty dark, and ended with the death of a central character, didn’t have many laughs in them. So I needed to get back to something that felt joyful in spirit, and that’s why I went for it.
Was it fun to work with an actress then that you weren’t going home to see as it was with Revolutionary Road? I would have thought that it would have been very intense to be working all day on this movie and then go home together every night.
It was fun to work on both of them, I loved working with Kate [Winslet], and when you’re making a serious movie, it doesn’t mean that the process is serious, you can have a lot of fun, in fact sometimes it’s the opposite; you get hysterical because the work is so intense that all you want to do is laugh, and you know to coin a phrase, comedy is a serious business when you are trying to make a scene funny it can be the most difficult thing of all. It sometimes can be the other way around, but Maya [Rudolph] was a joy, and the process of this film was much looser and faster, and more improvised in spirit. A number of scenes that are in there, bits of scenes are improvised by John [Krasinski] and Maya. So in that respect it’s a lot of fun. That stuff that John does by the side of the road, that Casey Kasem, that’s an improvisation.
And falling off, over that wall was very cute.
Yeah that was me saying “fall over the wall.” I mean that literally was it. And that’s the first take. But for all intents and purposes you think it's like a 100 foot drop, and the people in the restaurant also thought it was a 100 foot drop, so if you look you see a woman like “ohh!!” she thinks he’s about to fall to his death. But like Allison Janney when she’s on the train and she’s talking to her kid, and she’s saying “here watch this; Taylor, Taylor, Taylor” that was improvised I said “just keep calling him over and over again” and I said to the kid “she’s going to call you, ignore her” and he’s so good in that scene. He’s literally like he doesn’t hear at all. And kids are very difficult; it’s very difficult to get kids to perform but those two kids were great. So stuff like that and, for example there’s a scene before they go to Montreal where he comes back to the hotel having had the job interview and they have that thing about what they put on their fries in Montreal, that’s improvised by the two of them, because it gets to a point where you realize that you, me, John and Maya, know the characters better than they remember, and however brilliant the script is, and most of its great you suddenly hit a scene where its like “they wouldn’t do this, they wouldn’t talk like this the things in this scene, they already know this about each other.” So we did that, and that was them on the day, and to Dave and Vendela's credit, it’s great, it’s fantastic. And we love it. So it was really nice to work in that lose way and not have, you know its funny when you do an adaptation of a classic novel, the shadow of it falls over you the whole time, you’re always trying to be as good as the book. But it’s not the actual book. When you’re doing a classical play, it’s the words as written, you’re not changing Shakespeare’s lines or whatever, but when you’re doing an adaptation of a novel if you’re caught between those two things, on the one hand is a great work of art, but you’re not actually able to do it, you’re doing a version of it.
You’re doing a dramatization of it?
Exactly, put that bit in, or this bit, and how do I order it? And no that doesn’t work. It’s much more complicated. And in particular if you love and admire it, that’s why, I think, a lot of people say the best movies tend to be made out of bad books, because, you know, you don’t give a shit. Whereas a great book you spend the whole time walking on eggshells.
Wasn’t Revolutionary Road the first time you and Kate had worked together professionally?
So would you ever do it again?
Oh yes yes, absolutely. We had a fantastic time.
Well I don’t mean in that sense. I’d always heard that it was her project, that she sort of brought it to you, this was a book she wanted to do, you know in that sense, rather than looking for something for you to do together. Which would be the way you had done it.
Well yeah, I mean I didn’t do it because she asked me to. I did it because I loved it. I mean she just happened to be the person who read it first. I wouldn’t have done it just to please her. In the end, she isn’t going to spend 18 months with it, whereas she just does it for three months and then goes on to something else, and I’m stuck with it for months and months. But it was a pleasure and I would happily do it again.
And do people bring projects for the two of you to do together?
Occasionally. I mean they do things like “here’s the script blah blah blah, and of course your wife would be wonderful in the role” and it's like are you asking for me to do this, or her. And sometimes it happens the other way around. “We want to give you this, and there’s no director attached yet…” so you do get that occasionally but most of the time it's stuff that’s just yours.
Did you want this movie to have a different look than your other movies, and what did you do to accomplish that?
Yeah, I worked with a different cinematographer. I worked with a different kind of style I studied different kinds of movies, I wanted to be looser, I wanted it to be simple, sort of storytelling, a little rough around the edges. I didn’t want to obsess about lighting and in particular interiors. Just be much freer with it, and also we had no time, and no money, so I realized there wasn’t really a choice, I haven’t got time to light scenes like I would usually spend lighting them, and I said that as well, the irony is that you’re delighted to be working with me after everything, but I can't give you the time that I would have given them. So a couple of times she would get frustrated, but you know, I wanted it to feel warm and soft, we used old lenses and we shot widescreen, so I could get a sense of landscape around the characters.
What about Krasinski? He said he practically fell on the floor when you called him; he was working on The Office that day? And you go “I want you to be in my movie that I’m doing.”
Well I mean he did Jarhead, and he had four lines, and I thought “he’s going somewhere” so I said “stay in touch” and he said “I’m doing the American series The Office” and I said “that’s a terrible idea it’s going to be a disaster, don’t do it! Can you get out of it." He said, “No. It’s too late I’ve done the pilot already.” I said, “Oh well something else will come up.” I literally said that. I was such a fan of the English Office . I thought it can’t possibly work. So he went on to become a huge success on The Office, and then as he started doing movies and stuff like Leatherheads. I thought now he’s in a position where I can cast him as a lead. Because I’d always kept my eye on him. And then when I read it, I just thought of him straight away. I really did, I said, “Look, I read this script and I thought of you straight away, and I want you to read it” and he was like “really?” so that was absolutely what happened, and he was on set.
Maya it took longer?
Maya took longer, because I didn’t have her in my mind when I was reading the script. I thought, “This is going to have to be a young mixed race actress, and I need to meet the people available.” And it was Dave and Vendela who said, "What about Maya Rudolph?" And I said, “Well, I love her, but she’s high energy, high definition comedy actress, can she do this? I’d better meet her.” So she came in to do readings and she just walked in, and have you seen her? She’s just lovely. She just walks in and it’s just that, that’s who it is. That’s Verna and she read it and it was completely effortless. So yeah she got the part in the traditional way, she came in and read. She was great so I cast her.
This film is the first one essentially shot “green.” Did that change any of your way of working?
No it didn’t, but it frustrated the crew a lot. I actually expected it to be exactly the same and they struggled a little bit and there were a couple of technical flaws. But you know it was worth it, because the whole “green” thing is really important and I think we went a long way towards, it kind of felt like, I don’t know you always feel so weirdly guilty when you’re on a movie set, just the amount of stuff, you know the circus come to town, you know cranes, and traitors and gas guzzling SUV’s and vast quantities of food, some of which gets thrown away at the end of the day, and to be doing it to totally strip away and actually help the film as well as the environment, because it felt like, we’re just using what we need. People would drive hybrids and working out how to drink water without throwing away thousands of plastic bottles a day. That stuff actually makes a difference. So I was really impressed with the whole endeavor. It wasn’t my idea, someone asked do you mind if we went green? And I’m like, “No! Great!”
And what’s next?
Next I’m doing two more plays, Three Sisters and As You Like It. I’m doing with my company, The Bridge Project. The play come back to Brooklyn next year, goes to Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, etc. and ends up in London. And then I’ll do a movie next year, I don’t know what it is. I’m developing various things, and hopefully one of them will land.